In Part I of this exploration, we examined some behavioral patterns that escalate conflicts, including accusations and apologies. In this Part II, we turn our attention to patterns of thinking that lead us to make damaging errors when managing disagreements.
- Sunk cost effect and sunk time effect
- These two cognitive biases, and the "sacrifice trap," lead us to believe that rigidly adhering to our own positions in an ongoing disagreement is sensible [Boulding 1990]. The reasoning goes like this: "If I yield on this point, all my past work and sacrifices will be for naught." People who hold this belief feel that only total victory can justify the resources or time expended so far in establishing or defending their current positions. When this leads to increasing investment in the current position, this pattern is called escalation of commitment.
- Resolving sincere disagreements usually requires all parties to take into account at least some of the interests of the others. That often entails letting go of some of our own past commitments. People ensnared in the sunk cost effect, the sunk time effect, or the sacrifice trap have great difficulty letting go. Moreover, these lines of thinking can lead their adherents along a path of indefinite escalation.
- Confirmation bias
- Confirmation bias (see "Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I," Point Lookout for November 23, 2011) is a cognitive bias that causes us to seek information confirming our preconceptions, while we avoid information that might contradict them. It can also cause us to overvalue information supporting our preconceptions, and undervalue information that conflicts with them.
- This bias can obviously lead to conflict escalation when a party to the conflict interprets the statements or acts of other parties in ways that raise questions about their integrity. But more important, when confirmation bias becomes an ingredient of conspiracy theories, the conflict can widen to include other people not involved in the immediate conflict. Confirmation bias thus provides a means for toxic conflict to spread through the organization, contributing to factionalism and feuds.
- Attribution bias
- Attribution bias Resolving sincere disagreements
usually requires all parties to
take into account at least some
of the interests of the othersis a cognitive bias that affects the way we attribute causes for someone's behavior. In conflict, it can lead us to ascribe nefarious motives to people we dislike or distrust, while ascribing only the highest motives to ourselves or to people we like or trust. Even when the disfavored person behaves admirably or fairly, attribution bias can lead us to attribute that behavior to strategic deception, which justifies rejecting any constructive overtures by other parties to the conflict, rendering toxicity of the conflict inevitable, and making the toxicity more durable and intense.
- Once one of the parties to a conflict begins ascribing negative motives to other parties to the conflict, conflict escalation is likely well underway. Delaying intervention until one is certain that things have turned sour is extremely risky.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- When Leaders Fight
- Organizations often pretend that feuds between leaders do not exist. But when the two most powerful
people in your organization go head-to-head, everyone in the organization suffers. How can you survive
a feud between people above you in the org chart?
- Hostile Collaborations
- Sometimes collaboration with people we hold in low regard can be valuable. If we enter a hostile collaboration
without first accepting both the hostility and the value, we might sabotage it outside our awareness,
and that can render the effort worthless — or worse. What are the dynamics of hostile collaborations,
and how can we do them well?
- The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated
- In fiction and movies, the world is often simple. There's a protagonist, a goal, and a series of obstacles.
The protagonists and goals are good, and the obstacles are bad. Real life is more complicated.
- What Do You Need?
- When working issues jointly with others, especially with one other, we sometimes hear, "What do
you need to make this work?" Your answers can doom your effort — or make it a smashing success.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: II
- When groups can't reach agreement on all aspects of an issue, the tactics of some members can actually
exacerbate disagreement. Here's Part II of an exploration of impasses, emphasizing two of the more toxic
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.